It should be noted that the potential for protest outside the gates of Shinnecock Hills remains high this week, despite some last-minute parking lot diplomacy.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation, which numbers around 1,200 members, made peace of a sort with the United States Golf Association in advance of Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Open. The price of that peace: A parking concession on tribal land near the course as well as the promise of a new golf practice facility to be built on tribal grounds.
Still, Lance Gumbs, a member of the tribal council, told the New York Times that there could be protests aimed not at the USGA but rather at the larger notion that all these men in pastel slacks and white belts are trespassers.
“The protests are about our longstanding ties to the land itself – the land where the golf course and a lot of other properties sit right now,” Gumbs said. “The protests are to bring attention to the fact that our land was stolen without any compensation.”
Now, as to whether complaints of a less territorial nature take place inside the gates, we’ll see.
There is always the possibility of great, scalded yowling when the USGA is setting up its men’s professional major – a sound that some fans find quite entertaining. That certainly was the case in 2004, the last of four times Shinnecock has hosted the Open (the first being the second U.S. Open ever played, back in 1896). Wronged golfers sounded off that year like the sirens announcing a coming cyclone.
That tournament was infamous for a final-round scene at the par-3 7th, in which groundskeepers selectively watered the green between groups just to keep the thing playable. The zeal of the USGA to provide the most difficult test in golf had pushed Shinnecock to the brink of goony golf. Only two players broke par that year. Par, in turn, then broke everyone else. The USGA had practically paved a paradisiacal layout and turned it into a Disney parking lot.
Yet, this is where the U.S. Open has returned, in part, to reclaim its soul.
Standing greenside at that same No. 7 Wednesday late morning, as a misting rain softened the mood of its tilted landing area, one could not help but believe that man and nature were going to get this thing right. Just a little nourishing rain with four days of sun and an occasional challenging gust forecast to follow.
In the distance, at the highest point of the property, was visible the low-slung, shingled and gabled clubhouse. Not some overdone statement of membership wealth. Not an intrusive building done in the McMansion style. Just a perfect, almost modest, period piece from 1892, eased into the landscape.
The clubhouse oversees a nearly unbroken view of one of the USGA’s five founding golf clubs. Spreading out is a treeless plain of fairways and greens, bordered by knee-high stalks of fescue rough, where many ticks and bogeys surely thrive. Anyone accustomed only to the piney woods of Augusta National would be almost disoriented by the openness of the place. One glance can tell you so much about the whole of Shinnecock Hills.
It is a place that gently whispers tradition, even after having been reminded by the Shinnecocks that life here did not begin with the construction of a links-inspired place for the rich to work on their duck hooks.
A U.S. Open is supposed to be:
“The toughest test in golf.” – Jordan Spieth.
“Tight fairways; high rough; fast greens; hard, fast playing conditions; a real mental test as well as a physical test.” – former Georgia Tech star, British Open champ and Golf Channel analyst David Duval.
Having witnessed the winning score at the U.S. Open plummet these last four years – the combined 34-under by far the lowest of any four-year period – the tournament lords have returned to Shinnecock looking to bring sanity back to the scoreboard. To at least make driving on the course as problematic as driving to the course - traffic funneling into this side of the island can be grotesque.
If only the set-up of this place is just right – for good or ill, the USGA can tune acres like Clapton tunes his guitar – then the scores should be properly deflated. But not too much.
“I think it's a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree or then making it carnival golf,” Phil Mickelson said.
Hopes for a restored Shinnecock layout – lengthened to 7,440 yards, widened a bit, its greens large but no less demanding of precision – are running a fever.
“I'm excited to see a proper U.S. Open again,” Duval said. “I think it's lost its bearings a little bit the last few years.”
“Just when you say that name (Shinnecock), you think of the U.S. Open,” said Justin Thomas.
“It's the best setup, in my opinion, that we've seen, and the reason I say that is all areas of your game are being tested,” Mickelson said. “There are some birdie holes. There's some really hard pars. There's some fairways that are easy to hit, fairways that are tough to hit.
“The chipping and short game around the greens are going to be a huge factor this week. The challenge of the greens being extended and all the contours will continue to take balls further from the hole. You end up in fairway and have a shot, albeit a difficult one.
“And I feel like your short game's going to be challenged. I feel as though the luck of a course has been taken out as much as possible to where skill is the primary factor. I think we're going to have a great leaderboard and a great tournament.”
Nothing less, they seem to be saying, than a week to put old grievances aside.